- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The United States is quietly pressing Iraq not to close a camp that holds more than 3,000 members of an Iranian opposition group that served as Saddam Hussein’s shock troops in 1991 when he crushed rebellions after the Gulf War and now is vulnerable to Iraqi and Iranian reprisals.

Last week, Iraqi police stormed Camp Ashraf outside Baghdad, killing at least seven and injuring dozens during clashes with the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK. At the time, members of a U.S. unit known as Task Force 134, which deals with prisoners of war, were present outside the compound, said two U.S. officials — one in Washington, one in Iraq — who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A day after the raid, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad met with members of the Iraqi government to urge restraint. The next day, the U.S. Army helped medevac at least two dozen injured members of the MEK, the officials said.

Many Iranians despise the group for siding with Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi Shi’ites have grievances that grow out of the MEK’s participation in crushing an uprising in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

The U.S. has designated the MEK as a terrorist group for these actions and for the assassinations of six Americans in Iran before the 1979 Iranian revolution. But the U.S. nevertheless has sought to protect Camp Ashraf members — who include women and children — from Iraqi or Iranian attack and forced repatriation.

The camp had been under U.S. protection since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Iraq now seeks to reassert control under the provisions of the Status of Forces Agreement signed with Washington last year.

Iraqi media have reported that the government plans to close Camp Ashraf and disperse its residents to other locations in Iraq. Such a move could make the dissidents more vulnerable to Iranian intelligence and angry Iraqi Shi’ites who lost family members in 1991.

“Embassy officials met with representatives from the Government of Iraq [GOI] on July 29, to stress the importance of the GOI fulfilling its commitment to the United States Government to treat Ashraf’s residents humanely and to propose permitting an assessment of injuries and deaths by U.S. forces,” one U.S. official wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times. “The GOI allowed a U.S. medical assessment team to enter Ashraf and subsequently approved joint U.S.-Iraqi medical assistance to injured MEK Ashraf residents.”

A spokesman for the Iraqi government, Ali al-Dabbagh, acknowledged that there had been meetings with Americans about the subject.

“There will be no plans to move [the MEK members] anywhere in the short term,” he said, denying the Iraqi media reports. “We are thinking of their security about finding a safer place. But till now, this plan is not yet approved.”

Mr. al-Dabbagh added that MEK members would not be sent to Iran or any third country against their will.

President Clinton designated the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization. However, in 2002, the group disclosed that Iran was building a secret nuclear facility south of Tehran. The MEK also claims to have provided valuable intelligence on the Iranian regime to the U.S. military and to no longer commit acts of terrorism. Over the years, the organization has touted itself as a viable opposition movement against Iran, even though it appears to have minimal support within Iran and there is a cult of personality around the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi.

Still, the group has cultivated allies in the U.S. Congress who have pressed the State Department to remove the MEK and affiliated groups from its list of foreign terrorists.

Steven Schneebaum, an attorney for relatives and friends of some Camp Ashraf residents, said that last week’s raid proves the Iraqis already have violated their pledge to treat the MEK in a humane manner.

“There was an agreement apparently made at the end of 2008 between the United States and the government, a side agreement for the Status of Forces Agreement, in which the Iraqis promised that they would treat the people of Ashraf humanely and in accordance with international norms,” he said. “They are not doing that. There are a dozen, give or take, killed, 400 injured and 36 who have been removed from Ashraf.”

Mr. Schneebaum said the 36 had been “abducted” to a police station and that there was “concern that they have been physically abused already.”

Mr. al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi forces were under orders not to use live ammunition and that any injuries were caused by vehicles.

One of the U.S. officials said the MEK residents used crude weapons such as stones, rocks and clubs to confront Iraqi police.

Raymond Tanter, a member of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration who co-founded and is president of the Iran Policy Committee — a Washington group that advocates lifting the MEK’s terrorist designation — said Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told him that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government intends to destroy the camp, disperse its residents and send MEK leaders to Iran.

“Dispersal of the rank and file and extradition of the individuals with so-called blood on their hands is the game plan for the Iraqi government. I know this because this is what the Iraqi government has said,” Mr. Tanter said.

Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the committee’s ranking Republican, issued a statement last week expressing concern about the situation at Camp Ashraf.

“The Government of Iraq signed an agreement with the United States guaranteeing the physical security and protection of Ashraf residents following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area,” the statement said. “The Iraqi government must live up to its commitment to ensure the continued well-being of those living in Ashraf and prevent their involuntary return to Iran.”